When she was two and a half, “Iris” got lucky. She was moved from a neglectful home setting to a foster family who quickly fell in love with her. Her angry outbursts diminished as she began to feel safe.
When the new school year began, Iris’ foster mother enrolled her into the Head Start three-year-old classroom at C.A. Weis Community School. That is when she really blossomed! Today, at age six, she is thriving. Speech therapy, behavioral therapy, a nurturing classroom and a loving family turned her life completely around. The future looks very bright for Iris.
Parents and grandparents want the same for every child that they want for theirs: that every child has the support they need to thrive, just like Iris. Sadly, our community has fallen woefully short of that goal. Too many children are being left behind for lack of resources in early childhood education, detection, intervention, prevention, and health and wellness programs. Escambia County voters have the power on Nov. 3 to change those outcomes to give all children a better chance for an education, a good paying job and a bright future.
Escambia County has generous donors supporting the children’s service’s providers, but their financial resources are finite. And as generous as they are and as hard as the service providers work, Escambia County is still on the top of many of the state’s worst lists. We have the fourth highest rate of 67 counties in reported child abuse cases and the incarceration of African-American males under 18. Fifty-three percent of kids are not ready for kindergarten. Escambia County is in the bottom one-third (47th) of 67 counties in child wellness, an index of 16 factors. Santa Rosa is eighth.
The community has wrestled with these problems for decades and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated challenges many of our families face, highlighting crucial gaps and cracks in our children’s safety net. Long-term sustainable improvements will not be achieved without additional funding that is controlled locally to invest in evidence-based successful programs that yield measurable improvements.
Voters have the opportunity on Nov. 3 to vote for the creation of a new and substantial funding source for children’s services, the Escambia Children’s Trust, a children’s services council (CSC). The Trust is not another layer of government. It will not deliver services. Rather it will be a comprehensive partner investing in current and new innovative children’s services programs with great transparency and accountability operating under all Sunshine laws. Florida Tax Watch has endorsed CSCs as “an incredibly good value to taxpayers.”
The legislature recognized the need for a new laser-focused entity in 1986 when it passed legislation creating Children’s Services Councils (CSCs). There are nine independent CSCs in the state, whose metrics-based program investing has created many documented, positive outcomes.
The Florida CSC, a statewide umbrella organization, tracks the nine independent county CSC programmatic outcomes on a broad range of measures and has found the CSCs have achieved notable, measurable results, including:
Making improvements in these areas also increases high school graduation rates, increases our trainable available workforce and improves our community for all. The larger and better educated the workforce, the more local companies will expand, and new ones will come making sure that our grandchildren can find a good paying job and not have to leave.
CSCs have a significant advantage in that they have sustainable, recurring annual revenue that is locally controlled and is not dependent upon annual governmental allocations or the strength of the economy. This provides an additional level of critical consistent investment particularly important in unstable times like these when contributions to service providers can drop while demand for services increase.
The Trust’s recurring funding is controlled locally by a diverse 10-member governing board dictated by state law. Five members are appointed by the Governor from a list recommended by the County Commission with public input and must represent the diversity of the county. The other five include a County Commissioner, district administrator for the Dept. of Family and Children Services, a Juvenile Judge, School Superintendent, and a School Board Member.
The Trust will be funded by a 0.5 (1/2) mill increase in ad valorem taxes. The average homeowner will pay an increase of $40 annually. The average owner of any other type property will pay an increase of $67 annually. Obviously, larger property owners will pay more. Julian MacQueen, founder of Innisfree Hotels, owns five hotels at Pensacola Beach and the Airport Hyatt. His tax bill will increase by $33,000 annually. But Julian believes that we must make this investment in our children early and give them a better opportunity to succeed.
The Trust is on the Nov. 3 general election ballot and must be approved by a majority of Escambia County voters. It has a 10-year life and must be reauthorized by the voters every 10 years.
The half-mill increase will raise an estimated $7.8 million annually ($78 million over 10 years), the investment of which into evidence-based childhood development, detection, intervention, and prevention, health and wellness programs will be controlled locally. Less than 6 percent will be spent in administrative cost. These investments are used by the service providers as matching funds to secure an average of 70 percent in additional funds. That is $130 million invested in our children over 10 years.
The additional tax would not be collected until 2022. While this is a challenging time to ask people to incur additional cost, community members supporting the creation of the Trust believe the voters will Vote Yes For Our Kids on Nov. 3 when they understand the long term financial and community benefits.
The reality is that Escambia County residents are already paying for the negative outcomes from our current status. The County spent $150 million to build the new jail. It spends $4.2 million annually for the jail’s mortgage payment and $33,000 annually to house each prisoner. The County spent $8.8 million in FY 2020 to reimburse the State its pro rata share of the State’s Medicaid charges and the Detention Center cost. The School District spends millions in remedial education that could be repurposed if the needs of those students were identified earlier and given proper support. The Escambia Children’s Trust is an opportunity to invest in positive outcomes and reduce the cost in lives and dollars of the negative outcomes.
A zip code should not be a major determinant in a child’s ability to succeed, but today it is. The county has vast health care and educational deserts in many parts of the county that must be addressed to ensure every child has a pathway to prosperity.
This is a transformational moment and your help is needed to make it happen. Keith Hoskins, Sr., former NAS Base Commander and now vice president of Navy Federal Credit Union, the county’s largest employer, summed it up this way. “The Escambia Children’s Trust is a smart move financially; it makes business sense for sure. But more than that, it’s the right thing to do as community leaders, as citizens and especially as parents.”
Please visit the Escambia County Trust website for additional information at www.escambiachildrenstrust.org and to get involved in helping make a better future for all of our children and our community. Please Vote Yes For Our Kids on Nov. 3.
Council on Aging of West Florida is compliant with the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance Standards for Charity Accountability. Learn more at www.bbb.org.